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Hillhead, Rosyth

We travelled for hours by train from Lancashire to Dunfermline overnight reaching the Transit Camp in time to miss breakfast - not unusual for war-time train travel might mean changing trains a few times, sitting in a siding for hours while bombing or more essential traffic caused winding a tortuous trail across the then extensive network of UK railways. Carstairs was the junction in Scotland as was Crewe in England, and Servicemen who, by then could sleep the long overcrowded train journeys at a drop of the hat, always woke up there for there was a group of blessed WRVS ladies who turned out even in the middle of the night with tea and buns for sale to men and woman who had not eaten for many many hours - and this was when rationing was so severe that the sugar or even bread ration was not enough for the seven day week.

I recall some months later, travelling from Fearn Ross shire to Burscough Bridge Lancashire we were almost 36 hours enroute with nothing more than some pre packed bread and paste sandwiches.

A Transit Camp must keep its occupants occupied however uselessly, and its occupants must quickly find out “the cushiest number” and avoid drudgery. I soon found, in the Nissen Hut to which I was allocated, the inevitable ‘old hand’ who had been there for a long time without posting, and knew ‘all the ropes’. He advised me that studying in the school was great but it was oversubscribed, and the second was to volunteer as a Warder in the Rosyth Naval Prison - which I did - and I entered into one of the most fascinating and educational periods of my Naval Career.

As a Leading Hand Volunteer I was accepted within a day or so but as the ‘New Boy’ was given the less attractive midnight to 4 am shift for we worked naval timekeeping being roused 10 minutes before the Bell and in turn woke your replacement before the next Bell.

In No 2 uniform with gaiters and belt with a ring of keys handed over with my instructions from the Jaunty [Chief Petty Officer Regulating ] I decided I would make a tour of inspection and unlocking the iron gate set in bare pointed stone, locked it behind me and started to walk down the long corridor like in an American jail film when a cell door opened, and I was greeted by an inmate with a Geordie accent.

“Hi, you’re new - couldn’t sleep - thought I would stretch my legs a bit”

I literally gaped and said rather primly “What are you doing out. I checked with the Chief. Your door was locked?”

“God Jock, these locks are from the Ark. Have you got a fag?”

To which I replied shocked ” Prisoners are not allowed to smoke in the cells”

His reply was unprintable but he beckoned me into the cell, carefully eased out a camouflaged brick from the wall., selected a hidden dogend of tobacco, lit it to my gasp of horror . "Don’t panic” he said and jumped up to the high open barred window and clutching the bars and blew the smoke out. It was a far cry from Wartime London University but my education continued.

I can’t recall his name for people were usually Jock or Scouse or Brummie, names meant intimacy and in the life of the sailor who was always being moved ,or in the Squadrons, lost, were best avoided.

Geordie had been caught selling clothing coupons which were doled out to sailors to buy ashore from civilian Tailors highly prized No 1 uniform for shore runs [leave, free time]. This was his last night in the clink. To my surprise he joined me the next night as a fellow warder, for he was known as an otherwise dependable peaceable type by the CPO. I got his life story which I thought was 'Shooting a line' until I got a Writer in the bed next to me in the Mess to check his papers and even he was taken aback at the detail.

Geordie was about 30 and was a pre-war safeblower ‘by profession’ who, in 1939/40 was serving a sentence in Newcastle for burglary and assault. He was bitter about the assault charge for he claimed he had pushed passed the arresting Policeman on a step in the dark and the Bobby had fallen down the stairs. He could well have been telling the truth for I found out he was anything but violent in character. When in prison he was offered Commutation of Sentence if he joined the Army, in particular the Commandos who wanted his specialised skills. He was in the Lofoten Commando raid where he attended to the blowing open of the German Army safes and took part in other exercises culminating in the disastrous Dieppe raid where he told me he was ‘runner’ attached to a Canadian Company that were decimated by gunfire before they landed and where he received a bullet in his stomach, the scar of which he showed me. He was months in a hospital in SW England and discharged from the Army as ‘Wounded/Unfit’.

I asked him what was he doing as a Naval Rating and he somewhat sheepishly replied “ Well there was this nurse who looked after me for weeks when I was poorly, and she wanted to get married -which I did.”

"She’s a fine woman but I couldn’t settle down in Civvy Street. What could I do, so I joined the Navy and they accepted me." He was rated as an Armourer.

At that camp you were issued with knife, fork and spoon and without them you couldn’t eat. My 'irons' , along with a shirt, disappeared and I complained bitterly to him while we clanked round the cells. Next day he said “I’ve got your missing gear - here.” I said “I can’t take that it’s not mine "To which he replied “No name. No claim. Prove it” What could I do!

He taught me to pick locks and lectured on how to blow safes and the pros and cons of different makes.

He would say “You buy a medium sizes Aspirin bottle. throw away the Aspirin leaving the cotton wool, get some Nitric Acid and Sulphuric Acid from a chemist fill up carefully half full. Putty it with a string fuse to the lock of the safe light and cover with a mattress or coats and so on. If it’s a XYZ make don’t bother - it has a plywood back”. I learnt many more gems of wisdom But the best advice which has stood me in good stead all my life was “If ever you think to take to crime Jock remember you’ll still get 6 months for the first offence if your caught, doesn’t matter if you nick 60 or 60,000 -wait for the big lot you’re more likely to get away with it!” I have lived a Law Abiding life, for I never saw 60,000 lying about.

He continued to press me to have a good ‘Run ashore’ with him to Edinburgh and at last I agreed and we set off together at one Saturday Afternoon’s Liberty Parade due back by 6am Sunday. To begin with all was well in Edinburgh where we had tea at a Services Canteen at Waverley and walked around for awhile when he said “Follow me I’ve a lot of old pals here” and went into a pub at the top of Leith Walk and had a beer as he talked to the Barman.

Then he beckoned me to follow him out the back , along a corridor through a kitchen down dark stairs and into a small crowded smoky room full of men and woman drinking laughing and gambling and who knows what else. From London I knew what some of the women were up to and Geordie was well known and introduced me as “ A mate of mine “ and I was given a beer.

I was a young innocent and was appalled at the antics of the company and managed to slip out the door with a lame excuse “Going to the Heads Geordie”. It took me some time to find my way out via thank goodness an empty bedroom down stairs to exit on to a street at the back of the railway and was back in camp before midnight. For years I looked upon the centre of Edinburgh as a dreich empty Sabbatical place with sin and vice hidden behind high tenement walls.

A few days later I was allowed to go to School i.e. study Chemistry and Zoology from text books. I lost touch with Geordie who I think was posted - I hope to a cushy billet. However while I was still a Warden on night duty in the Jail, no one was allowed to sleep during the morning 8 am to 12 am, the night watch warders irregularly kipped down in an out of the way empty cell. I had been so relaxed one morning and went at noon for dinner and then back to my own mess for a permitted ‘kip’ or sleep. I was preparing to stretch out when a seaman from the Jaunty’s Office shouted to me to pack all my kit for I had a sea posting and they had been looking for me all morning. In 15 minutes I was packed and staggered down to the gate to find a very tall older LRM with his kit waiting for me and we were trucked down to Dunfermline Railway Station and handed over to the RTO [Railway Transport Officer] an old Petty Officer who told us we were bound for Orkney but "what had held us up - we had missed the train connection ?"

We sat all afternoon and were told to join the next Perth train, then called back to the platform  just before it steamed out. We were then ordered back to the Transit Camp on the next lorry where the Jaunty told us that we couldn’t have got to Scapa before the Carrier we were meant to join sailed next day. I never did find out the Ships name but later in life, when talking to another ex FAA chap I knew, said at that date it could have been a carrier that was bound for Murmansk and went down with all hands! I’ll never know if my crafty kipping saved my life or not.

The Tall LRM was Lofty Locke with whom I would serve with for the next 18 months. Lofty was in his 30’s,an old man to all of the rest of us 18 -19 year olds, and had been called up to the Yorkshire Yeomanry at the outbreak of the War, sent back to his old job as manager of a Petrol Refinery until replaced by an old retired civilian, then called up again this time to the navy where his scientific training got him into the ranks of Naval Radio - we had a high proportion of university graduates completing the courses and ‘ later’ on board the carrier the Radio Sub Lieutenant Evans was said to have been an Oxford Don. Despite the difference in our ages and backgrounds we became good friends and I learnt a lot from his quiet logical approach to life.

After a week or two in the School I got a clear posting back to an airfield in Lancashire to join the newly reformed 812 Barracuda Squadron, the CO being Lt. Commander Coxton.

Active Service

It took us 16 hours by train to Warrington arriving at the station about 9am, hungry dirty and tired, and met a Corporal Armourer in RAF uniform who, to our surprise, was also looking for transport to 812 Squadron. There were quite a few regular RAF personnel posted to the FAA Squadrons to eke out the sparse trained personnel required for the depleted Naval Air Arm and to man the new Carriers coming into service. It was only a few years since the Naval Air Service had split off from the peace time RAF.

At the station while we waited for transport-- a small fat wartime lady porter approached us pushing a four wheeled flat platform trolley piled high with crates and boxes which came to a halt stuck on a rise in the ground. She shouted to us in broad Lancashire “Come on Lads, Give us a hand” We joined her and shoved, and the trolley reared up and over the rise and a top crate , to our horror, came crashing down at our feet. She scowled, sniffed and swooped and lifted the crate from which a slow steady drip of brown liquid fell. “Quick, get a cup. Don’t gawk” and she scuttled to a doorway and grabbed a rather dirty GWR and ran back to hold the drip over the cup which, when filled she took a good mouthful, swallowed it with a gasp and said “Pass it round Boys”. It was fiery Irish Poteen which caused us to cough and burn on our empty stomachs. We reported somewhat inebriated, to a rather suspicious RAF Flight Sergeant who had been lent to the overstretched Fleet Air Arm and was the Senior Non Commissioned Officer the newly reformed 812 Barracuda Squadron. I have never really warmed to Irish Whiskey after that on to on an empty stomach.

The Barracuda was a lumbering underpowered Dive Torpedo Bomber whose progress in the air was described as ’two forward. one reverse’. It was new then having the pilot’s cockpit up high and forward, with the Observer down behind on a very short aluminium walk to the Telegraphist/Air Gunner’s seat facing back to the tail, with the Transmitter/Receiver at his knees and the recessed machine gun at eye level. The entry coping aft folded back and up and the gun could be pulled out and fired with the coping open. "Bloody First World War thinking.” The last 812 Squadron was equipped with Swordfish I was told.

The basic Radio equipment in 1943/44 was limited to a Trans Receiver - but not for long, for the days of the TAG’s were limited and the range of Radio and Radar and other electronic equipment increased and took over from the early ‘guns and guts’ pilots in their ‘stringbag’ canvas covered planes.

There were three radiomen with 812. Merril, the Acting Petty Officer, a Londoner who took as little work or flying as possible, LRM Bombur, a huge peace time ex Special Branch Detective from Norfolk, who joined us soon after, and Lofty and myself. Radio equipment could work fine on the ground but be faulty in the air and called for Leading Radio Mech. to replace the TAG to deal with any trouble. So I soon found out that Merril as the senior rating could find a reason why not to fly, Bombur although keen was, because of his size, too cramped to move around the restricted space while in flight for comfort, Lofty was very tall and held to be old - so - Jock had no excuse and, to my horror and apprehension I found myself occasionally replacing the TAG.

In later years it came home to me what an immature bunch of teenagers led by ‘veterans’ in their early 20’s made up the Pilots, Observers, Gunners, Aircraftsman and Naval Airmen who manned the incredibly dangerous hazardous naval squadrons. Our C.O., Lieutenant Commander Coxton was I was told 23 years of age and with only two or three of the officers a year or two younger. These youngsters, little more than boys, held life and death responsibilities unlike the older mature and highly trained naval ship’s company who looked upon us with disdain and disgust. Why, because of our technical training and responsibilities we were Non Commissioned Officers at the ridiculously young age of 19 or 20 compared to our seamen equivalents who had served 10 to 20 years and were in their 30’s.

Later I learned that we had a few, very few, old hands who had flown in Swordfish etc. Our Senior Observer was Wallace who later wrote a book of his experiences including his time with 812 Squadron. The CO had been operational in North Africa and at least one TAG, Geoff Squires had served as a Leading Hand at the Tirpitz attack. We had no Chief Petty Officer but had a RAF Flight Sergeant temporarily transferred from the pre-war RAF. Otherwise we were a solidly "Hostilities Only " wartime volunteers.

The LRM's messed with the other Aircrew Leading Hands - Telegraphist Air Gunners. Observers. and Pilots, all Naval Airman Rating. I was a North East Scotsman used to adult Farm Workers, found my messmates a bunch of mainly very immature English Public and Grammar School types, whose sense of humour I found infantile such as urinating drunk down the Nissen Chimney. I accepted it as one of these strange things you had to go along with in this bewildering and, underneath it all, somewhat intimidating Naval life.

In the next months we “formed up” moving from Naval Airfield to RAF establishment- we liked the RAF messes for the food was often better, although overall we were half a slice of bread away from malnutrition and sometimes not even that. I recall that the height of luxury over one period in England was a shared jar of Marmite spread sparingly over filched slices of white bread toasted over the stove in a smelly Nissen hut crowded with iron beds. We flew and worked by day and guarded Airfields at night with old Enfield rifles. Scarcely a week passed without an aircraft pranging [crashing] and faces we had started to know just disappeared.

I was friendly with a TAG, a Somerset farmers son, named Gee, who was a champion beer drinker and a very prosaic character. I could hardly finish a pint without feeling overfull. One evening in Fearn I asked him down to the canteen for a pint and he said" No Jock me tickets up". I told him not to be silly, for with all the losses we had many of the young men were twitchy and depressed.

Next morning I was held on the ground in a Barracuda with a U/S radio, when most of the squadron were in the air carrying out close flying. I got the receiver working on the Squadron’s operational band and heard the CO shouting on the other 5 planes to close up. They were flying at 1000 feet above the Cromarty Firth when the higher craft struck an air pocket and came down on the lower Barra. The two planes fell like stones to the sea. The crew of the bottom aircraft including my TAG friend were killed instantly. The top plane struck the sea and the Observer, Sub Lieutenant Sagg, a classical Cambridge scholar, staggered out on the sinking wing , inflated his Mae West and fell into the water.

He was picked up said to be black and blue and badly injured and we never saw him again. We presumed that he had died later for we buried the other 5 men at Invergordon. I rediscovered their graves next to the lair for my brother in law in the 80's.

In 1997 812 held a reunion and I was walking across to the hotel to join the others and passed a car with a man emerging. He said " >From your walk are you ex-812. Can I join you My name is Sagg". I almost said - you're dead but shook hands and we chatted. He had recovered unfit for flying and ,as he had studied Hebrew ended up as an interpreter with the Services in Palestine before returning to Cambridge where he had just retired as a Don.

At Fearn I flew one night as Air Radio in the TAG's position when we were carrying out Night Torpedo Bombing. We had lost two aircraft in the previous night's exercise. The pilot was a South African and, I was told, had taken a drink before flying. We were fine until we were landing and instead of cutting the engine at less than 6 feet[sea landing on a heaving deck called for dropping the last bit and catching the tail hook on the Arrester wires] he did so at maybe 16 feet. Our undercarriage went and the radio at knee level broke loose and caught my left knee and my face bounced down on the Gun. I wasn't bad enough to be in Sick Bay but I was lame for almost a year and I re-injured the kneecap slipping on the metal foot rest as I climbed into a Barracuda on the rolling flight deck. It has given me trouble off and on for periods throughout my life.

From Burscough Bridge, Lancashire to Crail in Fife for night Torpedo exercises, back to England then up north to Fearn Ross shire, where we were issued with Murmansk Arctic Convoy clothing [horror all round] but by rail to Greenock and the Belfast Ferry to Ballyhalbert, Donagadee, County Down from where we joined the newly built and commissioned HMS Vengeance, a light Fleet Carrier of 20,000 tons.